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Whatever Happened to Socialism?

THE DESTRUCTION of socialism in the United States had enduring consequences for American radicalism. The most important, perhaps, was the isolation of intellectuals from the rest of society. Marxian theory, no longer joined to a mass movement, became almost entirely a preoccupation of literary intellectuals attracted to Marxism not as a social theory but, as T. B. Bottomore points out in Critics of Society, principally as a means of continuing “in another fashion, that alienation from American society which had begun towards the end of the nineteenth century.” Bottomore’s short historical essay, which attempts to demonstrate and to explain the reasons for the poverty of social criticism in the United States, makes one aware of the degree to which American Marxism has served as a form of cultural protest and withdrawal rather than as a method of social analysis.

Even in the Thirties, an allegedly Marxist period of American intellectual life, Marxism was not widely accepted; its influence even on “Marxists” was superficial; and “there was not created any significant body of Marxist social thought applied directly to American society and culture.” The major works of social criticism in the 1930s, Bottomore reminds us—for example, Berle and Means’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property—were not Marxist; while the writings of Veblen, which in other countries have been absorbed into a socialist tradition of thought, became associated with theories of the “managerial revolution” many of which ended up by giving implicit support to the status quo. Socialist theory, meanwhile, remained “an affair of small political sects” among “socially isolated intellectuals.”

IF SOCIAL THEORY in the United States has been until recently “a somewhat weakly growth,” the chief reason for this, Bottomore argues, lies in the lack of strong links between theory and political action. “The absence of a broad radical movement…and the inability to work out an effective social theory [are] related.” There is a “two-way intellectual traffic,” according to Bottomore, between criticism and politics. “The social movements produce new ideas about their problems and about their possible solutions, while the critics seek to interpret on a broader scale the meaning of the social conflicts in which the movements are involved.” This interchange between action and theory, and more broadly between politics and culture, was just beginning to bear results in the early years of this century, which produced not only the “new history,” the beginnings of a critical sociology, and brilliant theorists like Veblen, but the artistic awakenings in Greenwich Village and Harlem. “During this time, the socialists, the trade unions,…the pragmatists, the muckrakers, the new generation of sociologists, seemed to be converging, and even uniting, in their criticism of American society.” After the war these movements split apart.

In several chapters dealing with the revival of radicalism in the Sixties, Bottomore shows how social criticism still suffers from the debacle of radicalism in the early Twenties. Popular criticism like that of Vance Packard or William H. Whyte, which under different circumstances might have been fertilized by socialist theory, remains wholly satirical. As Mencken ridiculed the “booboisie,” Whyte satirizes the organization man, without, however, asking whether “conformity” is a function of organization in general or of the particular circumstance that a certain kind of organization, the business corporation, “which should be merely an instrument, has set itself up in the United States as a way of life and a source of ultimate values.”

The popular critics, Bottomore notes, have simplified and distorted the ideas of Mills, Riesman, and Erich Fromm—and even these more serious writers, he thinks, suffer from the isolation in which they work. Since the First World War, the social critic in America, deprived of the advantages of the sustained tradition of criticism that would have evolved in connection with a broad movement for radical change, tends to present his ideas “as extremely personal judgments upon the state of society.” This helps to explain “the lack of agreement or even clarity about what is being attacked in present-day society and what is to replace it.” While the analyses of Mills and Riesman converge in some respects—as in their common concern with collectivism of opinion and styles of life—in other respects they diverge, Mills drawing on the Marxian tradition, Riesman on Freud and cultural anthropology; Mills stressing ways in which American power was concentrated, Riesman its dispersal. “There is little here which resembles the coherent philosophical outlook of the pragmatists in the progressive period.”

Another tendency in recent social criticism is existentialist irrationalism—the one philosophy that seems to have made some impression on the New Left. The popularity of this point of view, even more than that of the others, betrays the association between social criticism in the United States and the intellectual’s “alienation.” The irrationalist critiques of modern society, ranging from new Hegelian versions of Marx to various existential social philosophies, are “undogmatic, highly personal and idiosyncratic,” and therefore inadequate “to sustain effective social criticism or to bring about any radical social change.”

BOTTOMORE’S JUDGMENTS, delivered matter-of-factly and without the stridency so often associated with books about American radicalism, seen consistently sound. None of them is novel or startling in itself. Nor do they have the force of arguments richly elaborated and supported by a mass of historical data. This is too thin and hasty a survey to have the impact of a work like Weinstein’s, which immerses the reader in concrete details while at the same time furnishing him with a coherent analytical perspective from which to understand their meaning. In any case the material covered by Bottomore is thoroughly familiar. The value of his book is that the point of view is not.

It is a point of view, however, to which Americans need very badly to be exposed. For one thing, Bottomore is a Canadian. This gives him a healthy distance from the subject; more important, it makes him aware, as many Americans are not, of the degree to which political ideas in the New World have necessarily derived from Europe, specifically from the classic social theorists of the nineteenth century. In addition Bottomore is a Marxist and takes for granted that effective social criticism has to begin by cultivating a more systematic awareness of this European intellectual tradition, which, on the one hand, provides an indispensable foundation for a theory relevant to the history of English-speaking societies in North America, but which, on the other, needs important revisions if it is to account for the differences between America and Europe. Ignorance of the Marxian tradition and an overly literal application of Marxism to America have alike impeded social criticism in the United States. If, as Bottomore hopes, the present political chaos should generate a collective effort among critics and scholars to take up the great themes of nineteenth-century theory where they were abandoned in the Twenties, this work would nevertheless come to nothing without a recognition that these themes represent the beginnings, not the final form, of a critical theory appropriate to American conditions.

The new Marxists will have to ask, for example, whether the classic tradition of social theory did not all along under-estimate the importance of national, ethnic, and racial divisions. As a Canadian, Bottomore recognizes the importance of national questions in the contemporary politics of advanced countries. Americans, faced with a “national question” of their own, ought to be similarly sensitive to such issues; but European influences, moving into the vacuum left by the failure of indigenous criticism, have consistently obscured them. Here as elsewhere, the early beginnings of an American sociology, which would have incorporated the experience of American Negróes and other experiences peculiar to the United States, proved abortive.

THE COLLAPSE OF RADICALISM after the First World War did more than impoverish social theory. It also created a cultural crisis, the effects of which began to be felt almost at once. Before the First World War, radical politics and cultural experimentation often converged. The Masses, in many ways the most impressive cultural product of the postwar rebellion, owed its distinctive vitality to a combination of socialism and “paganism,” as Max Eastman called it. Wedded to no cultural orthodoxy, genteel or revolutionary, the magazine under Eastman, Floyd Dell, and Art Young consistently upheld high standards of artistic excellence. It prided itself on being “arrogant, impertinent, in bad taste, but not vulgar.” And although Eastman and Dell were eager to print “revolutionary” works of art, “neither of them for a moment,” as Daniel Aaron insists, “would have judged a writer by his political affiliations. The artist as artist was beyond social criticism.” Not until the Russian Revolution did they begin to think otherwise; and even then it was impossible for men like Eastman to accept for very long the view that revolutionary writers had to subordinate their art to politics. Eventually Eastman broke with Stalinism over this and other issues—one of the first of many Americans to conclude that “instead of liberating the mind of man, the Bolshevik Revolution locked it into a state’s prison tighter than ever before.”

When The Masses stopped publication in 1917, its place was taken by The Liberator, which attempted for a time to carry on the cultural traditions of its predecessor. The new left wing, however, had very little use for the “paganism” of the old Masses, which smacked of “estheticism.” Mike Gold, writing in The Liberator as early as February, 1921, issued a call for “proletarian art,” and attacked The Seven Arts, one of the voices of the Greenwich Village awakening. No “great lusty tree,” Gold wrote, could grow in “that hot-house air.” Subsequent articles by Gold denounced “the mad solitary priests of Dada” and other purveyors of sterile pessimism and “pure art.” “Since 1912,” Daniel Aaron writes, “a polarizing process had been under way which divided the Bohemian from the revolutionary” and forced writers to choose between art and radical politics. This polarization had not become critical so long as American socialism remained a broad and inclusive movement devoted, among other things, to creating a better understanding of life under the existing order—something art is supremely equipped to do. Only when the new left wing shattered the Socialist party and substituted for long-term efforts to revolutionize American consciousness a mystique of immediate communist revolution did art come to be suspect in radical circles. The role of artists then came to be defined as dutiful servants of the “revolution”—that is, propagandists for mass culture, as against the stale and artificial culture, as it had come to be regarded, of the literati. The New Masses, which succeeded The Liberator in 1926, devoted itself even more enthusiastically to “proletarian realism.” Gold shared the belief that the magazine should be read, as one contributor put it, “by lumberjacks, hoboes, miners, clerks, section-hands, machinists, harvesthands, waiters—the people who should count more to us than paid scribblers.” “Who are we afraid of?” Joseph Kalar demanded. “Of the critics? Afraid that they will say The New Masses prints terribly ungrammatical stuff? Hell, brother, the news-stands abound with neat packages of grammatical offal.” In searching out writers with their “roots in something real,” Gold explained that he hoped to organize writers “on an industrial basis” and to create a “national corps of writers” who would report and dramatize the class struggle. Meanwhile he kept up a running fire against the “dull, bloodless, intellectualistic poetry” of T. S. Eliot; against Thornton Wilder, the “prophet of the genteel Christ”; against Dostoyevsky; against Proust (the “masturbator” of the middle class); and against other “politically imbecile” writers, whom he denounced in addition as “pansies.”

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